The meaning of a communication is in the response it gets

Created by Dianne Lowther of Brilliant Minds NLP,

This one is a very frequently-quoted Presupposition of NLP, and one that puts us very firmly in a position of responsibility if we choose to accept it.

The underlying principle here is ‘the map is not the territory’. If you read my earlier article on that presupposition you’ll remember how we looked at the way that experiences mean different things to different people. Two people can ‘make sense’ of the same events in very different ways.

Similarly, words can mean different things to different people. What you thought you meant might not be what someone else would understand by what you said. Or to put it another way, the words that you choose to express your thoughts might correspond to some rather different thoughts in someone else’s head.

No word has an absolute meaning. Language develops and changes and the meaning of words can shift over time. What you understand by the words ‘nice’, disinterested’ and ‘gay’ is probably very different from how those same words were understood 200 years ago.

In just the same way, words can have different meanings to people in contemporary times and alternative understandings can be equally valid.

This can be one of the reasons why misunderstandings arise in communication. It is especially true in written communications, because we are deprived of the voice tonality, facial expressions and gestures that would serve to clarify our meaning in a face-to-face encounter.

Now, if you’re one of the people who can spend a lot of time crafting the words in your emails and reports to convey the exact nuance of meaning that you intend, I have some bad news for you. The exact nuance of meaning that you intended to convey is probably lost on the readers of your carefully composed sentences.

Now, this where our presupposition – the meaning of your communication is in the response it gets – comes into play.

Have you ever found yourself saying to someone, “No, that’s not what I meant!” and feeling quite indignant that they have missed the point of your wonderfully articulate email? You have? Well, sorry, but the presupposition says that whatever meaning the listener or reader of your words ascribes to them IS the meaning of your words.

And the meaning of your words can most accurately be identified by observing the reaction to them, because a response in words is subject to all the same vagaries as your original message.

So the meaning of your message is what others understand by your message, not what you intended them to understand. In other words, if you want people to get a particular message, it’s your responsibility to create the understanding in the mind of your listeners/readers, rather than it being their responsibility to figure out what you intended.

To illustrate the point, let me tell you a story:

The Managing Director of a firm I was working with was very proud of his 5-year plan and the clear objectives that he’d identified for each year. As I met different people in the organisation I asked them about the 5-year plan and the current priorities. None were able to tell me what they were. When I relayed this finding back to the Managing Director he snapped, “Well, they should know. I’ve told them.”

It was clear to me, that whatever he intended and thought he had communicated, he actually had communicated nothing. Nobody knew the plan, therefore he had not communicated it.

So what’s the answer? Well, for a start, ask yourself what is the response you want to your communication? To convey your message accurately, it’s usually more effective to give the same message several times, in more than one way. Keep monitoring the response. When you get the response you were looking for, you may be justified in considering that you’ve communicated what you wanted to communicate.

And there again…

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  • Billy June 14, 2010, 5:19 am

    Great post, thanks for sharing. It really made me think about what it is you are trying to say as apposed to what is being said.

    • Chris June 14, 2010, 6:36 am

      Thanks for reading Billy. As Diane mentioned in the post, we all interpret words differently because our maps of reality are unique. Its important to speak plainly, and seek feedback for understanding.